#InspiringWomen: May

Welcome to The Bandwagon’s new feature for 2016 – #InspiringWomen. These posts aim to not only celebrate successful women, but also to encourage others to follow their dreams. Meet May’s lady, Sian Norris.

me 1Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is the co-editor of Read Women, the founder and director of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, and runs the successful feminist blog. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue is published by Our Street and her short story, The Boys on the Bus, is available on Kindle. Sian is currently working on a novel based around the life of Gertrude Stein.

What made you want to join your industry?
I always wanted to be a writer. So ever since I was a kid – I’ve always written stories and articles. I’m a voracious reader and so have always just been surrounded by words and have always wanted to create my own stories. When I was at university I studied English Literature and I used to write stories for creative writing magazines around that time. I used to make my own short fiction ‘zine’ that I’d distribute around London and Bristol. Then when I graduated in 2006 I set up my blog – initially as an online version of the zine and then it became increasingly political. I was working at the library and freelancing for magazines and newspapers.
Then when I started working as a writer in different ad agencies I carried on freelancing on the side – writing for the Indy and Guardian and Open Democracy etc. Setting up the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival was a great way to bring together my feminist activism and my love of writing and storytelling, as is co-editing Read Women. My first book came out around the same time as the first festival, and then I started writing my second novel. Sorry, I’ve gone off on a real tangent! I’ve always wanted to be a writer and so for as long as I can remember I’ve written, and everything I’ve done since becoming an adult has in some way supported my writing ambitions and plans. Now that I’m involved in Read Women I’m really lucky to be able to bring together my passion for reading and writing with my campaigning activist work on women’s representation. It’s great – I get to discover loads of new writing and new writers, and hopefully inspire other people to discover these amazing women too.
What challenges have you had to overcome in order to get where you are today? (personal and/or professional)
Lack of time and lack of money! I work full time in a fairly stressful job and always have done so all my writing work and the festival work has been done in my spare time. So evenings and weekends and lunch breaks are often spent writing articles or short stories or working on my novel. And when the festival planning is in full swing that takes up a lot of spare time. But it’s worth it because I love it. Money as well – I’m hoping to get funding for the next festival but so far it’s been self-funded.
I think there’s a real problem in writing and publishing and journalism with unpaid internships and the expectation you work for free. I’ve been responsible for that myself because I too haven’t always had money to do the projects I’ve wanted to do, and have had to ask people to donate their time for free. That said, I’m determined to change this! But we need to make sure writers are paid for their time, to encourage a level-playing field and to ensure that talent gets out there – otherwise only those who can afford to keep working for free are able to get their work in the public eye. So much of what I do I self-fund by working full time but obviously that limits the time I have for writing and curating and creating new work. It’s a big challenge to overcome and I know I’m not alone in that.
What does being a woman mean to you?
Wow, that’s a loaded question! I don’t know. There are lots of wonderful things about being a woman. I’m surrounded by a community of amazing women – feminist women and creative women (of which there is a lot of overlap of course). I really value the women-only spaces I’m involved in because they offer me support, inspiration and advice both professionally and personally. I have lots of really brilliant women in my life many of whom I met thanks to feminism and thanks to writing. So being a woman means I have these connections with other women that have changed my life and opened doors for me.
But obviously there are awful things about being a woman in our unequal patriarchal society. For example, one of the ways we learn we are women is because of the way we are treated in society – a lifetime of harassment, discrimination, of experiencing your body as public property, of either experiencing male violence directly or supporting loved ones who have. So for me, the brilliant experiences I have of being a woman are also up against the challenges that I know happen to me because I’m a woman in this unequal world.
And that really is what a lot of my work is about – trying to create a more equal society, trying to challenge the negative stereotypes and beliefs that uphold inequality, in order to achieve women’s liberation.
Name some women who inspire you.
My big inspirations are writers. I am really inspired by the writer Gertrude Stein who not only hosted the most important literary salon in the 20th century but was the most innovative, experimental modernist writer. And although she is fairly well remembered, it is mostly for being Gertrude Stein the person rather than Gertrude Stein the writer. She was so ahead of her time and yet she had to face a lot of mockery, and the male writers she mentored and supported are better known and more widely read than she is herself.
Writers working today who really inspire me are Margaret Atwood and Ali Smith and I’ve been very lucky to have met both of them!
As I say, I have lots of incredible women writers and activists in my life who inspire me every day with their creativity and their courage. Particular shout out to my amazing friend Nimco Ali who fearlessly campaigns to end FGM. Not only one of the most courageous and effective campaigners I know, but a really wonderfully kind and generous friend.
What advice would you give to young women who want to go into your industry?
Write! If you want to be a writer then the most important thing you can do is write. Write blogs, articles, stories, poems – never stop writing. Try and write for 15 minutes a day. And submit everywhere – don’t think your work isn’t good enough or worry that editors won’t like it. Men tend not to think like that. So write all the time and submit what you write.
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